Here’s Why International Women’s Day is on 8 March & It’s Not Because It’s 三八

Happy International Women’s Day!

Reader: Wait, there’s an International Women’s Day? Since when?

For those of you who don’t know, International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on 8 March to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness about women’s equality, fundraise for women-focused charities, and more.

In Chinese, this event is commonly known as 三八妇女节,  国际妇女节, or 三八国际妇女节. The “三八” refers to the fact that this day is celebrated on 8 March.

In Singapore, those who celebrate the occasion usually just gift a small token to important women in their lives like mothers or girlfriends.

Don’t worry if you forget to get a gift though, most people in Singapore don’t even celebrate this occasion anyway. Your wife won’t make you sleep on the couch for not getting her flowers today.

Grab a snack or a cup of tea and sit down because we’re going to go through the long history behind International Women’s Day, dating back to over a hundred years ago.

Why International Women’s Day is on 8 March

The reason why International Women’s Day is observed on 8 March has to do with a massive revolution a century ago.

Back in the late 1800s, women were not allowed to vote. Married women had no property rights, and husbands had legal power over their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat them without facing any consequences.

Divorce and child custody laws favoured men, giving no rights to women. Many occupations like medicine and law were also closed to women, and when women did work, they were paid merely a fraction of what men earned.

At the time, there was great unrest and critical debate among women. Women’s oppression and inequality were spurring women to become more vocal and active in campaigning for change.

On 8 March 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter work hours, decent wages, and women’s suffrage.

Reader: Women’s suffrage? They wanted to suffer?

No lah, women’s sufferage refers to the right of women by law to vote in national or local elections.

That May, the Socialist Party of America declared that the last Sunday in February would be National Women’s Day. And so, the very first National Women’s Day was celebrated a year later on 28 February 1909 in the United States.

In 1910, during an International Conference of Working Women, Clara Zetkin (leader of the “Women’s Office” for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) suggested the idea of an International Women’s Day. She proposed that all countries celebrate on the same day, and this suggestions was met with unanimous approval.

International Women’s Day was honoured on 19 march 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. Over a million people – men and women – attended International Women’s Day rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office, and end discrimination.

Less than a week later, the tragic “Triangle Fire” took the lives of more than 140 working women on 25 March.

That afternoon, factory workers (mostly young immigrant women) were receiving their paychecks and preparing to go home when a fire suddenly broke out on the eighth floor. It was later discovered that a match on that floor had come into contact with fabric and debris, causing the fire to spread rapidly to higher floors.

Many of those women died from smoke inhalation, fire, or jumping from the windows of upper floors.

It turned out that there were many flaws in the building’s fire safety, which had been done to turn a profit. Despite needing two fire escapes, the building only had one. All exits also had doors that opened inwardly. The building had two exits and two elevators located at each end of the ninth floor. While one stairway was engulfed in flames, the other had been locked to prevent employee theft. This meant that the only escape routes left for the victims were the elevators.

They basically had no way out.

This 1911 event drew significant attention to working conditions and the slogan “Bread and Roses” emerged, bread symbolising economic security and roses symbolising better living standards.

On 8 March 1917 in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg today), women textile workers began a demonstration to end World War I, food shortages, and Tsarism. This “Bread and Peace” strike marked the beginning of the February Revolution, which was part of the Russian Revolution.

The Russian women demanded, and gained, the right to vote in 1917 due to their protests in March. This was a year earlier than Britain and three years earlier than the United States.

Given that the women’s march in New York and the women’s strike in Petrograd happened on 8 March, it would only make sense for International Women’s Day to be on 8 March, right?

The date for International Women’s Day was eventually changed to 8 March, in honour of the two iconic rallies by women, and millions of people all over the world – men and women – celebrate this day now.

International Women’s Day 2024

This year’s theme is Inspire Inclusion. This paints an image of a world free from bias, stereotypes, and discrimination to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive world.

When others are inspired to understand and value women’s inclusion, we forge a better world. When women themselves are inspired to be included, they get a sense of belonging, relevance, and empowement.


International Women’s Day in Singapore VS Other Countries

In Singapore, most people don’t even know that this day exists, or if they do, they don’t bother to celebrate it. At most, Singapore residents simply buy flowers or chocolate as a small token.

Or maybe we get a TikTok from SPF of a very pretty policewoman.

In other countries, however, this day is a much bigger event.

In Turkey last year, women braved an official ban on an International Women’s Day march in Istanbul, Turkey.

Thousands gathered on 8 March to march through central Istanbul, and Turkish riot police released tear gas and fired pepper spray to disperse a group of protestors pushing back against a line of police.

In Spain last year, competing rallies for International Women’s Day were held.

Under the “Only Yes Is Yes” law, which came into effect in late 2022, a rape victim’s silence or lack of resistance could not be construed as a green light.

While this law was meant to better define sexual consent, it inadvertently provided a loophole for over 700 perpetrators to reduce their sentences.

Socialists undermined Unidas Podemos by voting with opposition parties to reform the law, but surprisingly, Socialist ministers joined a rally in support of Unidas Podemo’s political stand.

The other rally on the same day saw attendees who were against the transgender rights law, which protects transgender people. In this march, people were seen holding signs saying “March 8 is for women”.

The two concurrent rallies in Spain showed divisions in Spanish feminism, even though International Women’s Day should be about people coming together to support the cause for women’s rights.

In Singapore, due to laws that make it illegal to hold cause-related events without a valid licence from the authorities, such public demonstrations are very rare.